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Andrzej Celinski

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Andrzej Celinski was born on February 26, 1950, in Warsaw, Poland. Celinski graduated from the University of Warsaw with a degree in social sciences. After graduation, he became actively involved in several opposition movements including the Workers' Defense Committee and Solidarity.

Celinski began organizing protests against Poland’s communist regime at an early age. As a teenager in 1966, he rallied thousands of people gathered for a High Holy Mass at Saint John’s Cathedral for a peaceful, anti-government march to the Communist Party headquarters in Warsaw. Celinski joined the 1968 and 1970 protests that were suppressed by the government.

Following the 1980 Lenin Shipyard strike in Gdansk, Celinski was tapped as an expert advisor to the Founding Committee of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the communist bloc. Soon after, the members of the committee recognized his ability for organization and appointed him the secretary of the board of the Founding Committee. In this position, Celinski was tasked with structuring and organizing the body’s meetings. When authorities declared martial law and officially banned Solidarity in December 1981, Celinski was arrested for his activism and spent a year in prison.

After the fall of communism in Poland, Celinski was elected as a senator from Solidarity and served from 1989 to 1993. Celinski was then elected to parliament where he served for over a decade, including a stint as minister of culture from 2001 to 2002 in Prime Minister Leszek Miller’sgovernment.


Because what you need to know is people like myself do not have a shadow of a doubt that our freedom today is only due to a miraculous coincidence. A confluence of external circumstances. Ever since the Peace of Westphalia – ever since 1648, Poland, the Polish nation has never had such fantastic external circumstances for their freedom and their politics. [The Peace of Westphalia was a group of treaties ending the Thirty Years War in Europe. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth emerged as a strong central European power.]

This is something barely imaginable – for more than 300 years we have not had such fabulous external constellations. We have managed to not muck this up – and this is all the credit we can claim. In some part due to the extremely traumatic experiences of Polish insurrections of national liberation. And that includes the Warsaw uprising of 1944. And in some measure thanks to the events of 1970 in Gdansk. In the Poland of 1981, and later 1989, what won the day was a brand-new paradigm of national politics. Echoing the words of Werner von Heisenberg, I would term it the paradigm of the philosophy of enlightened moderation. For this we give credit primarily the KOR social milieu, and then of the [Roman Catholic] Church. Primarily KOR, and secondarily the Church. In this sequence. Mark this: no one else in Poland will phrase it for you this way.

Everyone will tell you that it was the Church was first and foremost. [The Warsaw Uprising was an unsuccessful but heroic military campaign by the Polish Home Army during World War II against Nazi occupation forces. In 1970, large anti-government demonstrations in Gdansk led to the resignation of the communist leader Wladislaw Gomulka. Werner von Hesienberg was a German theoretical physicist who declined to join the Nazi Party. The Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) was an anti-communist underground civil society organization in the 1970s, formed to provide assistance to laborers and others persecuted by the government. Many of Solidarity’s leaders were also active in KOR.] As well, credit goes to a particular modeling of relationships in the 70s and possibly also in the 60s between the opposition, the hard opposition, and the authorities, in which the sharp edges were filed away. The sharp edges were filed off. Confrontation was to be avoided.

To give an example – the KOR in the 1970s and 80s – we were proud of our anti-system opposition. All the penalties and all the rewards we received originated in our own social circles – the authorities could do zilch to us. What appeared in 1979 was a new initiative which was semi-oppositional – and this was named DiP – Doświadczenie i Przyszłość [Experience vs. Future]. The most well-known name in that social circle was [the journalist] Stefan Bratkowski. These were people who by and large carried Communist Party IDs in their pockets. At that time anyway.

They were mad as hell at them for taking away our cachet of oppositionists. And yet we bent over backwards to give them any and all comfort, nurtured them like a fragile plant – because we knew that they were populating this gray zone between us – the real opposition – and the authorities. And we knew that there was value in that – that that chasm needed to be bridged. [Stefan Bratkowski, a journalist and member of the Polish United Workers Party from 1954-1981 (when he was kicked out), initiated Doświadczenie i Przyszłość discussion groups in 1978 that consisted of Polish intelligentsia cooperating with the democratic opposition] Clearly, our objective was primarily internal politics, and the things that we did were done in consideration of internal circumstances. But of course there were also external circumstances.

And I remember even in 1987, in October in Washington DC, I was talking to Dante Fascell, who was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the U.S. Congress, who did not believe that what we were doing in Poland made any sense – still in 1987, October 1987. And, incidentally, a Democratic Congressman. So I had to convince this man, that not only Moscow should be the only context through which they analyze the situation in East Central Europe. The Germans for their part – for instance Wörner – Manfred Wörner – were working to convince us that the keys to [German] unification were in Moscow. And so there was no way they could back the democratic opposition in Poland.

That system for the world was a stable one. It was Moscow's game to demonstrate that any kind of opposition of the sort that we represented destabilizes international peace. Internally, what counted was that the team of Edward Gierek had its hands tied – by international debt, by the Helsinki Process, and also by a mentality, the memory of the blood which had been shed in Gdansk. [Dante Fascell was a Democratic congressman from Florida who played a key role in establishing the National Endowment for Democracy. Manfred Wörner was West German Defense Minister and later NATO Secretary General. The Helsinki Accords were an international treaty signed by 35 countries in 1975. They guaranteed basic human rights and promoted cooperation between the Soviet bloc and western nations. Dissidents and activists in the communist countries used their governments’ signatures to the treaty to advocate for freedom and human rights. Edward Gierek led the Polish communist party from 1970 – 1980.]

That the Church under [Stefan] Wyszynski and [Karol] Wojtyla – and this is a miraculous thing in the history of Poland’s Catholic Church – this church opened beyond our wildest expectations. And in actual fact in that decade of the 1970s this church was completely open. [Stefan Wyszynski was a Roman Catholic Cardinal and head of the church in Poland. Bronislaw Demboski is a Polish Catholic priest and later bishop.] In 1978 the police struck very hard against us, against the Flying University, this was our organization which staged lectures at private homes, and then the police started to break in on these sessions and we had all kinds of problems. [The Flying University was a clandestine opposition initiative to educate youth in history, politics and other topics.]

So I went over to Msgr. Dembowski – he was a Catholic intellectual, well-known for that, a professor – at St. Martin's Church, with a request for him to grant us use of his church, the one he was rector of. For some serious well-prepared lecturers. He chatted with me, shall we say without a final commitment. And at some point he utters this line: well, next week I have a hearing at the Primate’s. Can you stop by, in 2 weeks? I came over, and I was a young man then, I was 27 maybe 28 years old. So I was impatient for a commitment on this, and he somehow seemed to play for time. And my problem was that we had already run into a conflict with a local convent in Kraków – the Norbertan Sisters, and that church – one of us simply acted immaturely, and in a provocative kind of way. So we already had some tension going on with that church in Krakow. I was extremely keen on not having any conflict in Warsaw with the Primate.

And so father Dembowski says, all right, let us have that lecture, you can have it over here on Thursday evening. So I ask him, OK, so I take it to mean that the Primate has agreed, yes? And he gives me this long look and says no, I did not ask him. So what is going on here? He gives me another long look and says: You know, there was no way I could have asked him, because if he had said no, then you would have held him responsible for failing to support your activities. If he had answered yes then the authorities would have held him responsible for fraternization with you. So I say, and now what? He says to me, well I needed to know what he would have answered if I had asked him, but I did not.

The reason I am telling this is that a very significant component of this whole situation before Solidarity, in the 1970s, was that space remaining in between ourselves and the authorities. 

Poland is a central European country bordered by the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Ukraine, Germany, Russia, Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Poland has a population of 38 million people; nearly 90 percent are Roman Catholic.

Poles struggled against foreign dominance from the 14th century and the modern Polish state is less than one hundred years old. Polish borders expanded and contracted through a series of partitions in the 18th century. After a brief period of independence and parliamentary democracy from 1918 to 1939, World War II brought occupation by Nazi Germany and the near annihilation of the Jewish population. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Poland’s Jewish population went from over 3 million in 1933 to 45,000 in 1950.

After the war, Poland became a Soviet satellite state and a communist system was imposed. Farms were collectivized, basic freedoms curtailed, and a culture of fear developed under a Stalinist regime. The 1960s brought greater prosperity and some liberalization. Labor protests in the early 1970s tested the communist government’s resolve and prompted modest reforms.

In 1978, Polish Archbishop and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian to hold the position since the 16th century. The pope’s triumphant return to Poland in 1979 saw massive outpourings of public support, shaking the foundations of the government and inspiring the opposition to press for peaceful change.

In 1980, shipbuilders in the seaport city of Gdansk united to confront the government. Their calls for greater political liberties and improved working conditions developed into the Solidarity movement. Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa, became the movement’s voice. Protests and unrest spread throughout the country and the communists replaced their leadership. General Wojciech Jaruzelski became prime minister and declared martial law on December 13, 1981. Solidarity was outlawed and Walesa and other Solidarity leaders were imprisoned.

While martial law was lifted in 1983, Poland continued to stagnate. Mikhail Gorbachev’s elevation to leadership of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 brought new pressures for reform in Poland. A failing economy and continued repression incited workers to a new wave of strikes in 1988. A desperate regime agreed to legalize Solidarity and conduct semi-free elections. In the 1989 parliamentary elections, Solidarity won 99 of the 100 Senate seats and 160 of the 161 lower house seats they were allowed to contest. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarity leader, became Poland’s first non-communist prime minister in over four decades. In 1990, Lech Walesa was elected president with 74 percent of the vote. While Solidarity splintered as Poland democratized, a coalition government of anti-communist parties won fully free parliamentary elections in 1991.

Poland transitioned to a market economy and applied for integration into western institutions. Economic dislocation returned the former communists, now social democrats, to power in 1993. Free elections and peaceful transitions in the following decades solidified Poland’s multi-party democratic system. Reforms eventually led to a more robust economy and Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2013, Poland earned the status “Free,” (as it has since 1990) receiving the best possible rankings in the categories Political Rights and Civil Liberties. 

More from Andrzej Celinski

Andrzej Celinski: Poland's Long Path to Freedom “Our freedom today is only due to a miraculous coincidence.” Andrzej Celinski: Opposition in 1960s and 1970s How disparate groups united to oppose communist rule. Andrzej Celinski: The 1970s: Helsinki, Civil Society and Stagnation “For communists, a self-organizing society is an abomination.” More + Andrzej Celinski: Founding Solidarity "After a few days or so I was named Secretary of the Board of the Founding Committee of Solidarity." Andrzej Celinski: A Teenage Dissident Defying the communist regime as a teenager. Andrzej Celinski: Background Andrzej Celinski discusses his family’s history. Andrzej Celinski: Politics and Education Andrzej Celinski rebels against the communist system as a university student.